Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cooler Than Ollie

It is common knowledge that the Ollie box has been one of the great innovations in small boat sailing. It is a waterproof automatic timing and horn system for starting races. It can be programmed with up to three different sequences, selectable from inside the box. It has made life easier for many, many race committees and kept timing precise for the racers. It is unquestionably a great invention!

But as clever and useful as the Ollie box is, my good friend and fellow laser sailor, Eric, wondered if there might be a way to have an automated system that we could use in our informal racing where no race committee boat or race committee person is present. Could there be an alternative to rabbit starts that would help us all hone our time and distance judgment in starting? Could we just float an Ollie box and have one of the racers initiate the sequence?

Ollie boxes are expensive and fairly heavy, and one would sink like a stone if given the chance. It didn’t take much thought to realize that any flotation scheme risked losing the Ollie if something went wrong. It was particularly worrisome that it would not be our Ollie box at the bottom of the lake, it would be our Yacht club’s. Eric decided to start from scratch and develop another floating automated starting system that could be operated by a passing racer. Here is his description of his ingenious and low cost solution.

The device is built into a medium-sized picnic cooler which is about 10 inches wide so that it can be transported in a Laser cockpit. A 5 lb. barbell is used as an anchor attached with a 50 ft. line to a cleat on the forward end of the cooler. Excess line is wrapped around the cooler handle so the scope can be adjusted according to the water depth. The cover is secured and sealed by good old duct tape.

There are just two control switches, “Start” and “Abort,” which are doorbell buttons mounted on the aft end of the cooler. There is no separate power switch. The unit turns on when the start button is pressed, and automatically powers down at the end of the start sequence or when “Abort” is pressed. 

 A standard 3-minute dinghy starting sequence is used beginning with 5 short warning beeps and ending with a 5-second countdown to the long start blast. The short tones are ¼ second long with ¼ second spacing. Long tones are 1 second with ½ second spacing. The final start blast is 2 seconds long.

The sound source is a waterproof piezoelectric marine horn which has been likened to the sound of a dying duck. It is not terribly loud, but on the other hand, it does not destroy the eardrums of the sailor starting at the “boat” end of the line.


The electronics are housed in a small waterproof plastic box (in case the outer duct tape seal fails). The power is supplied by 8 D-cell batteries mounted to the floor of the cooler so they also serve as ballast along with two 4 lb barbells. The calculated battery capacity is about 2,400 starts, so battery life is really just limited by shelf life. Three empty 2 liter soft drink bottles are included in the enclosure for emergency flotation.


The electronics consist of a small microprocessor board (ARMite single board controller, Coridium Network Control Systems) with a few extra solid state components added to interface with the buttons and horn, along with some circuitry for the auto power-down. The software is just a small (about 170 line) program written in BASIC.


Overall, the system works pretty well, although I am sure there are improvements that could be made. Naturally, we have to use the honor system when it comes to being over early at the start. Maybe someone can come up with a paintball system to mark a boat that is OCS.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Last Saturday was the final day on the fall sailing season for the high school team I coach. Actually Thursday was the last official day, but four of them wanted to drive two hours to get in one last day and one last regatta. You gotta love those people who can’t get enough of the things they are passionate about, and respond to each last time or last day with a plea for “just one more.”

Maybe a coach shouldn’t be happy after his team finishes seventh in an eight boat regatta, but after silencing the Vince Lombari voice in my head, it occurred to me I was proud of my very young freshman and sophomore sailors who thought nothing of going head to head with the best varsity junior and seniors from other schools. It took me a while to really pinpoint why I was so proud of them, but out of the blue, despite years since I have heard, read, or spoken the word, the perfect word came to me – gumption. Gumption is a word that seems to be out of fashion, but it sounds great and is enthusiastically positive without being syrupy or trite.

Dictionaries offer many definitions for gumption – initiative, resourcefulness, courage, spunk, guts, common sense – but the definition I like best comes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.”

It took gumption just to get to this regatta. When the event was first discussed, it was explained that it was two hours away, that the school would not provide transportation, that the school prohibited the coach from driving students in his own car, and that kids therefore had to provide their own transportation. None of the varsity skippers was prepared to hurdle those obstacles, but the future star freshman, and head gumption-eer immediately responded with “I’ll go. My mom will drive.”
“Has she agreed to that?”
“Not yet, but she will.”
The very talented out of town sophomore who sails with us, but is usually prohibited from competing in official school competitions, said he “would clear his schedule” for some outside competition. The freshman’s regular crew, our team captain, responded with her usual “I have no life outside sailing; I’m available.” And a few days later the volunteer for everything sophomore who always wants to go “even if I’m not sailing” offered to crew. The plan was hatched. We committed to the regatta.

It took a little more gumption to stick to that commitment after a series of setbacks. Future star freshman sprained her ankle the weekend before the regatta. She couldn’t sail all week, but swore she would heal enough and tape up the ankle sufficiently to sail on Saturday. On Wednesday the very talented (best kid on our team) out of town kid thanked me for a great season and said he now had a family obligation on regatta day. A call for a volunteer replacement elicited only one sophomore who was a crew and not a skipper. The only solution was to elevate the volunteer for everything sophomore from crew to skipper, and although he just started to drive the boat this year, and is about ninth on our depth chart, he was our man. None of the kids thought of any of this as an obstacle; it was just an adjustment in the plan.

When it came to the racing, there were six races in the A fleet for future star freshman and her crew, and six races in B fleet for volunteer for everything sophomore and his crew. In the first five races, future star freshman was averaging sixth place out of eight and volunteer for everything sophomore was averaging seventh. But in the final race for each, things started to fall into place. Future star freshman advanced from sixth at the windward mark to first on the last leg and then lost one boat to finish second. Volunteer for everything sophomore put together a good first leg to be fourth at the windward mark and gained one boat to finish third.

In our own gumption based scoring system, we threw out the first five races, counted only the last race in each fleet, and won the regatta by one point.

My sailors impressed themselves with what they accomplished in those final races, but they really impressed me with the gumption that it took to get them that opportunity for success.

As I think about it, maybe one of the things I like most about sailing is the gumption of the sailors. High schoolers are frequently willing to risk repeated capsizing and challenge themselves to sail in strong wind that the coaches know they can’t handle. Blue water sailors, long distance ocean racers, and solo single handed round the world racers all possess incredible knowledge and skill, but they are all the more admirable because of the gumption they demonstrate in pursuing their challenges.

And a final shout out goes to a couple of my friends who had the gumption to fly to England, compete with world class sailors, push the limits of their aging (and in one case, sick) bodies, and test the limits of their small boat sailing abilities in overpowering wind and massive waves. You have my admiration.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Autobailers- Part Two

Removal and replacement with a watertight plate

For a very long time, leaking autobailers had been my nemesis as I battled to keep all 12 of our high school sailing team’s well used 420’s fully functional. This year, it was time to abandon our duct tape solution (actually better tape than duct tape, but just tape nonetheless) and move on to a real solution. Several ideas occurred to us, but each seemed both expensive and flawed in one way or another.

  • Replacing the autobailers would be expensive ($62 each x 12), and they would quickly fail again with the boats exposed to our very sandy environment and the care left in the hands of multiple, careless, high school students.
  • Fiberglass work to plug the holes after removing the autobailers would be tricky and time consuming, especially given the very thin hulls on 420’s. A quality fiberglass repair of a 3” by 5” hole also takes expertise I don’t have.
  • A friend offered to weld the old autobailers shut, but after discovering the gaskets inside, he determined they would melt into a gooey mess that was not compatible with welding.
  • A stainless steel plate bolted to the hull with the same bolts used by the removed autobailer would seem to work nicely. I couldn’t find anything like this sold commercially, and I worried that having them made would get almost as expensive as buying new autobailers. When I examined an old bailer I had removed, discovering that the bottom of the bailer was not flat, but a pan shape, I became totally discouraged about the cost of having such a piece custom made.
What we (mostly a former sailing team member, now a college graduate) finally came up with was a way to reuse pieces of the old autobailer to make a waterproof plate. The 420 autobailers are constructed from three separate pieces of stainless steel and a couple of gaskets. The chute that drops to let out water is sandwiched between two frames. Our solution was to replace the chute and its gaskets with a solid piece of hardened West System epoxy resin that would span the hole and bond to both frames of stainless steel with a water-tight seal. We tried it out on our boats during the summer, and we have been sailing for six weeks this fall with no leaks.

Here is what the process looks like:

First, we remove the autobailers and separate the three pieces, the two frames and the chute. They are fastened together with six copper rivets that need to be drilled out.

Drilling Out the Autobailer Rivits

Autobailer with Rivits and Lever Removed

After the pieces are separated, the chute and its gaskets are discarded.

Next, the top and bottom frames are tightly bolted together. Then, they are temporarily bolted to a piece of wood that will serve as the bottom form when we pour in the resin later. Wax paper must be inserted between the wood and the frames to prevent adhesion of resin to the wood.

Frames Ready to Receive Fluid Resin

The resin is two part West System epoxy with High Density 404 Adhesive Filler mixed to a thick, but pour-able, consistency. It is just poured into the frames, making sure all the corners are filled. (We waited 24 hours before removing the assembly, but the resin sets up in about an hour.)

Pouring Resin into Metal Frames

The final step is removing the new pieces from the temporary molding board and inserting them into the boats to plug the holes where the autobailers were removed.

Finished Autobailer Replacement Plate

All the old silicone or 5200 needs to be removed from the fiberglass on the boat before installing the new piece, and this is the most time consuming and tedious part of the process. When installing the new piece, all the old nuts and bolts are used. Working simultaneously from both the top and the bottom of the boat takes two people and is a little awkward. Careful attention needs to be paid to craftsmanship when the new sealant is installed. (We screwed this up on a couple of boats and had to reseal them.) We used marine silicone sealant which lasts for a long time, but had we been 100% sure this whole approach was going to work, we might have used 5200 for a permanent bond.

View of 420 Hull with Autobailer Plug Installed

Has anyone else come up with another way to eliminate autobailers that they would like to share? Other comments on autobailers?


Friday, October 22, 2010

Autobailers- Part One

Keeping it simple?

Autobailer side view - open

Some time ago, Paul Elevstrom came up with a simple solution for removing the water that accumulates in the cockpit when sailing small boats in big wind and waves. He used the fundamental Bernoulli principle (low pressure created by moving fluids – you remember) to invent the autobailer. In Lasers, 420’s, and other small boats I have seen, the autobailers all have the same basic design. A chute that can open and close is mounted at the lowest point of the hull and depends on suction caused when the boat is moving rapidly forward to remove water from the boat. It has “a wedge shaped venturi that closes automatically if the boat grounds or hits an obstruction, and a flap that acts as a non return valve to minimise water coming in if the boat is stationary or moving too slowly for the device to work.” (Description from Wikipedia, with British spelling of minimize.) Mr. Elevstrom’s autobailers have been bailing small racing boats for a long time now.

But wait! Autobailers have also been letting significant amounts of water leak into small boats for a long time now. Maybe cutting a hole in the bottom of a boat to let the water out is not such a simple solution. Isn’t that how boats sink?

I think many of us have had love/hate relationships with autobailers over the years. Sometimes they seem to work, and sometimes they cause annoying leaks. My experience is that they work well when they are installed, maintained, and used properly, but when those things are done poorly, the system breaks down quickly and the water flows the wrong way, sometimes in copious amounts. I suspect Paul Evelstrom was very good at care and maintenance. I certainly try to be good about those things with my Laser, but don’t always live up to his or my own standard. However, many small boat owners don’t believe in maintenance. They hate autobailers.

Among those who abhor maintenance are all of the sailors on the high school sailing team I coach. They not only abhor maintenance, they are inclined to practice abject neglect or worse on all of their equipment. Fighting these instincts in upper-middle class American teenagers is a tilting at windmills kind of exercise. Apparently, it is one of my callings.

We have a fleet of twelve old 420’s, no maintenance person or budget, and our boats, which are shared with the town recreation department, are heavily used. Despite ever improving preventative maintenance (done mostly by me), things still break – frequently. Although problems run the gamut in older boats, the overwhelmingly most frequent failure is leaking, nay, hemorrhaging autobailers. These devices depend on two different gaskets and a silicone or 3M5200 seal - three opportunities for water infiltration. For two years now, our favorite solution has been to tape over bailers with a 4” wide, waterproof tape which obviously also eliminates any possible benefit from autobailers. For several reasons, this approach has had various degrees of success, but it seems the “coach, my boat leaks” complaints never stop.

In fairness to the kids, some of the boats had seriously flawed autobailers by the time we got them. On top of that, we launch from a beach. Raising the main and putting on the rudders while standing in the shallow water stirs up the bottom enough to create an insidious slurry cloud that exposes all underwater parts to as much sand as water. Sand on the sailors’ boots also gets deposited inside the boat when they hop in. Rubber gasketed autobailers are just no match for sand that can penetrate the smallest of crevices. I can’t imagine the perfection in care and maintenance required to keep a bailer opening freely and closing tightly in these conditions.

With all due respect and deference to Paul Elevstrom, autobailers demand a high level of care and maintenance that is just not possible for us (and many others I suspect). A device that uses simple mechanics and physics turns out to be not so simple when operated by teenagers in a sandy environment. For us, a hole in the bottom of the boat is just a leak.

We won’t miss having working autobailers. They really don’t work well in the 420 anyway until the boat is going fast. Our courses are always short and don’t offer long fast straight-aways where the self-bailers work best.

The solution for us is a bleach bottle bailer and no hole in the bottom of the boat. Since all our boats came with an autobailer, the problem became how to remove them and plug the holes (twelve times) with a minimum of cost and effort. Necessity being the mother of invention, we came up with a way.

I haven’t heard a leaking boat complaint in six weeks, so I’m cautiously optimistic we may have found a relatively simple and definitely cheap solution for the hole in our boats.

Part Two will attempt to explain and illustrate our approach.


Monday, July 26, 2010

10 Suggestions For Managing Multi-fleet Regattas

The last three regattas I have attended have had two, three, and four different fleets starting on the same starting line. Sometimes the fleets have different numbers of races, different lengths of courses, and sometimes even different course configurations. It can be quite a juggling act for the Race Committee. Although nobody has asked me, I want to offer my two cents about techniques that can be used to make race management more efficient in these highly challenging conditions. I’m not an expert, but I have been to enough races to see a lot of good ideas and endorse them as if they were my own. The terrific regatta I wrote about a month ago used several, but not all of these suggestions. I think each item makes an incremental improvement, but each also requires some resources, so there is always a trade-off between the two. I’m sure my list is not comprehensive, so please feel free to add your thoughts.

The overriding principle here is to maximize the PRO’s options. In a multi-fleet regatta, the PRO is constantly making judgments about minimizing inter-fleet interference and getting the next fleet started. He needs all the tools he can get to be flexible and agile, and he can’t have his hands tied by unnecessary constraints in the Sailing Instructions. He needs the best committee members or crew that he can find, he needs plenty of mark and rescue boats, he needs to be able to move marks quickly and easily, he needs the capacity to change courses, shorten courses, and have a separate finish boat when required.

1. Get a skilled PRO and a crew who enjoy doing all this.  Some people actually have fun meeting the challenges managing this kind of regatta brings. Some also enjoy sailing as a spectator sport. And who doesn’t like riding around in power boats talking on the radio?

2. Keep the start and finish lines outside the course.  This keeps all those not starting or finishing away from these areas. Lines in the middle of the course or even at marks are subject to traffic from any of the fleets.

3. Use separate start and finish lines.  Having to delay the start of a whole fleet for a couple of stragglers at the end of another fleet wastes a lot of time. A separate finish line solves this problem. One line on each side of the committee boat is the easiest way to do this. A finish line completely separate from the starting area goes even further by allowing simultaneously starts and finishes by different fleets. But it also takes a boat and a skilled crew to set a good finish line and record finishes.

4. Use a short starting sequence.  It is always tricky to determine if there is enough time to get off a start without running the starting fleet into a fleet already racing. The shorter the starting sequence the easier it is to make that judgment. The three minute dinghy start works well.

5. Get enough marks.  Having different marks for different fleets is the ultimate in flexibility. They do need to be very clearly different, like yellow and orange. They can be tied together whenever the same location can be used for multiple fleets. A change of course mark is also good to have so that the new mark can be placed immediately, and the mark boat has more time to remove the old mark.

6. Make the marks easy to handle.  I like marks with a handle on top and a lightweight anchor (a short chain or a sash weight work great where I sail). As I was told in a US Sailing seminar, “You are only anchoring a bag of air.” If marks can be dragable – even better. Placing and moving marks can be relatively difficult or easy and relatively time consuming or quick.

7. Equip all mark boats with change of course and shorten course flags.  All boats also need to be able to anchor and record finishes if called upon. The crews need to clearly understand the procedures for all this. A rule book provides a handy reference for double checking the correct procedures. This gives the PRO tremendous flexibility to deal with radical changes in sailing conditions or weather.

8. Communicate well with the competitors.  The competitors need to understand the actions and intentions of the Race Committee, so the Sailing Instructions need to be very clear about how competitors will be notified of their starts, what marks are to be used for their fleets, and the schedule of races. If the Race Committee makes adjustments on the water, there needs to be a clear procedure (specified in the Sailing Instructions) for notifying the competitors of the changes.

9. Communicate well with all members of the Race Committee team.  This begins before the regatta with the PRO clarifying his expectations and defining roles and duties for all the members of the team. All variables should be anticipated and discussed in advance. Procedures should be reviewed. The language for discussing things should be clarified. Are wind direction and mark locations defined by compass direction, compass bearing, or simple right and left? Are right and left as viewed by the PRO or by who ever is speaking? Radios should be checked both on shore and on the water, and even then, back up radios or cell phones should be in each boat.

10. Practice, practice, practice.  It is great if the entire Race Committee team can work together at least once before the regatta, but any experience with any of the above techniques develops expertise, and every little bit helps.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Communication with the Race Committee

Last weekend I was at a regatta, and before the first race, I asked the Race Committee to confirm my understanding of the course. Their response was to point to a placard and say “course 6.” Well, that was helpful. If I had known what course 6 was, I wouldn’t have been asking the question. I realize I was a dolt for not having committed the 7 different courses in the sailing instructions to memory. I was even more foolish for deciding that there‘s no good way to carry reading material on a laser. And I was an irresponsible competitor to have tried to depend on the kindness of strangers to explain what had already been explained clearly enough in those sailing instructions next to the regatta tee shirt in my car. Clearly I deserved to be punished.

Needless to say, I was. The convergence of my reckless negligence with the unlikely good fortune to be leading the first race led to the inevitable tragedy of my snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. To finish the course, I managed to sail upwind back to the start line, while the competitors way behind me sailed to the real finish line which it turns out was not nearly so far upwind. While sailing to the “correct” side of the course, I succeeded in sailing around the real finish by so far that I didn’t even see it. Subsequently returning to the real finish, I recorded a 5 and was grateful for the small laser turnout for the regatta.

I get it - understanding all the sailing instructions is part of racing. But really! Is it too much to ask the race committee to explain their unique course designations to a visitor?

This all leads to the general question of how much the Race Committee should communicate with the sailors. At pre-race skippers’ meetings, it has been standard practice for years for the PRO to answer questions with the magic, unhelpful phrase “refer to the sailing instructions.” This has always impressed me as being unfriendly, if not arrogant. It suggests a tone of seriousness or gravity that is contrary to the expectations of most of the sailors I know. For most of us, this is supposed to be fun.
“Refer to the sailing instructions” sounds like homework, when we are looking for recess.

I realize that the thinking is that the PRO or Race Committee should be careful not say anything to contradict the carefully written sailing instructions. While there is some merit to this reasoning, it seems to me that it goes way overboard for any but the most serious high stakes regattas. The risk of offering explanations and clarifications to the instructions is that one could actually increase confusion or introduce contradictions that then could result in some disastrous consequence that in turn could cause a protest or even skew the results of the event. Does that seem likely? Are the explanations really likely to be so bad that they would do more harm than good? In a time when there is a need to attract more people to sailing, what is more important – covering for the remote possibility of an imperfect explanation by the Race Committee or establishing a friendly atmosphere where everyone enjoys the sailing experience?

One of the high school coaches I work with always tells the sailors “if you have any questions, ask; if you are confused about the course, ask the race committee – it’s not supposed to be a mystery.” I know that I would be happier if events were run with this philosophy. I admit that I was the stupid one last weekend, but who wants to win or lose because one of the sailors misunderstood the course?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Multi-Class Regatta with No Waiting Time

I have been to many multi-class regattas where three or more classes share the same starting line and the same course. The one common characteristic for almost all of them is that they have lots of waiting time - long, wasteful, and seemingly unnecessary waiting time. Last weekend I finally went to one that broke the mold. With four classes on the same course, the races for each class were started as promptly as if there was no one else on the course. Major kudos to Duxbury Yacht Club.

I have to admit that in the last few years I have become very impatient on this subject. Aside from personal psychological deficiencies, the blame goes to coaching high school sailing and laser sailing, especially frostbiting. High school sailing is always short course racing, and a good sailing day is filled with many races. (College sailing is similar in this respect.) The fleet race regatta we host typically has 12 races with sailors returning to shore to swap boats every two races. If the course to shore distance were less, we would do 16 races. I run an intramural regatta twice a year where there are 7 – 9 races in a two hour time frame. Laser frostbiting works the same way. Our high school head to head team race events have five races in the same two hour window.

The reasons for these efficiencies are fairly obvious. Frostbiters get far colder when waiting than racing, so nearly constant racing is the prescription for greater comfort. (I acknowledge that for most of the world frostbiting and comfort are antithetical.) Many places follow more or less the same format in summer racing because it is simply more fun to race than to wait – especially in a laser. In high school racing, the minimization of down time is related to the short, little attention spans of students culturally trained to have ADHD. If they aren’t focused on the coach-guided activity, they drift into never-never land, and they are hard to recapture.

Having experienced a piece of the sailing world with faster paced racing, I have very little interest in going back to the slower pace of larger boats. The fun of racing just seems to overshadow the relaxation (boredom) of milling around and waiting. It is even more interesting and challenging to be the race committee in these situations.

Despite my impatience, I can recognize that my enlightened opinion might not be the enlightened opinion of others. The majority of the sailing world seems to have little interest in the seeming hyperactivity of nearly hypothermic sailors and inattentive high school students. Last summer I wrote about A Three Race Regatta?! where the Flying Scot racers were satisfied while I was mystified – 3 races in 2 days? At the far end of that spectrum is the America’s Cup where one race a day after hours, maybe days of anticipation, is all the excitement anyone can handle

It’s certainly a good thing that sailing contains a multitude of options allowing people to enjoy the sport in very different ways. But occasionally there is a clash of the different worlds within the sport. In those instances, it is surprising how little we seem to understand each other. Last spring our team sailed in a regional regatta where teams qualified for nationals. It was hosted by a major yacht club that was unreasonably generous at making their very upscale facility available to questionably responsible high schoolers. However, when it came to the racing, their course was a mile from the club, sailors in the second fleet were stationed on a large float to wait in the wind and the rain, and the first attempt at a course set-up had a one-mile long windward leg that looked like it would yield 45 minute races. Can’t do many of them in one day! How could they fail to understand the courses used in high school sailing when they were the perfect host in every other way? How could the high school organizers fail to make their expectations clear? Different worlds.

Multi-class regattas where lasers are invited present a similar opportunity for a clash of different sailing worlds. Usually the world I live in is the loser in such a clash. But Duxbury was different. The differences in the class of boats were striking – quick little Lasers, comfortable but lumbering Flying Scots, Marshall 15 cat boats that are fiberglass re-makes of New England boats of the 19th century, and Pintail 25s that look a bit like a plasticized Herreshoff design. Yet with right length courses and the proper spacing between fleets, there was virtually non-stop racing and no interference between boats of different fleets. For the lasers, a few more races than five might have been desirable, but overall it was a great day of racing. Sailors from the other classes seemed to be similarly satisfied. If there were compromises, they were the right ones as the race committee expertly bridged the gaps among very different classes. Kudos again to Duxbury Yacht Club.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Walmart Lasers

Last week I picked up a paper copy of the APS (Annapolis Performance Sailing) catalogue, and in the Laser section, I found a “practice” Laser sail priced just under the price of the infamous “practice” Laser sail from Intensity. Undercutting Intensity by a dollar or two is not exciting, but to think that a Laser Performance dealer has joined in the game of low-priced non-legal Laser parts gives one a moment of pause. Although APS has always carried a practice sail, it never has had one priced at less than $200, so this is something new.

We have been all through the argument of using non-class legal sails before. Hard core one-design believers think the purity of the brand should always be preserved, and some rebels and cheapskates think that $550 is just too much to pay for something that can be had for less than $200. But since almost all rebels and cheapskates have been willing to compromise and use the legal sail at serious regattas, there really hasn’t been much of a ruckus.

It would seem that the undercutting Laser Performance / North Sails game is working so well for others that APS, and maybe some other dealers, are starting to want a piece of the action too. And the action does not stop at sails. The business of making and selling low-priced, non-legal Laser parts is growing faster than weeds in my garden. Just at APS, you can buy a “practice” daggerboard, rudder head, rudder blade, outhaul and Cunningham cleats, boom, lower mast (full, radial, or 4.7), and upper mast. Intensity sells all of that, in some different non-class legal non-one-design variations, and they also sell a “practice” auto-bailer and a “practice” mounting plate for the hiking strap.

I’m still looking for non-legal gudgeons, grab rails, and bow eyes so that I can strip a laser and build a “Walmart” Practice Laser with absolutely no genuine manufacturer approved parts except the hull! Nothing builds a champion so much as practicing in a boat with sails, blades, and spars different than the ones that must be used in real competition.

For those of us who just want to manage the annual operating cost of Laser sailing, it all just looks like the world has gone a little crazy. Sails are one thing. The sail is the most interchangeable part on the boat, the most expensive part on the boat, and the part that wears out the quickest. If, in a five year period, I buy five class legal sails, I spend about $2750. If, instead, I buy four practice sails and one class legal sail, I spend about $1350 while using a legal sail in every important regatta I attend.

How much would I save if I used a “practice” daggerboard? Stupid question because nobody uses a practice daggerboard. But just to play along, if I were an elite racer for whom the wear of the trunk on the daggerboard over, say a five year period caused me to replace it with a new one, I could save a whopping $50 by buying a practice one. If damage were the issue, assuming I managed to damage one daggerboard beyond repair every five years and thus needed two of them in a five year period, I could again save that $50, but if, and only if, I had the good sense to damage the practice one and not the competition one. I seldom exercise this kind of clever planning. The same logic applies to rudders and spars.

These parts are not “practice” parts, they are simply cheaper, non-legal, knock-off parts

Attached hardware gets even worse. Even self deception can’t go far enough to disguise the fact that the boat is illegal all the time! That’s a big compromise! And then there is the issue of quality. We all find the cost of marine hardware downright painful, but reliability and durability are paramount. High price and quality wins every time over low price, low performance and breakdowns. With hardware, less is almost always less..

So the non-class legal Laser part industry can offer us some minor savings in exchange for less reliability, less (or unknown) quality, and a thorough trashing of the one-design concept. No self-respecting Laser racer should want to convert his boat into a Walmart Laser. Even recreational users and underfunded community sailing programs might not be served if quality and reliability are compromised.

There has to be some common sense and some middle ground when it comes to this kind of thing. When is the world going to finally start behaving like I think it should? Outrageous!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Flip-flop Laser Centerboard Handle?

There are many ways to rig a Laser, but here is something that I don’t recall seeing before. I’ve been trying a “flip-flop” centerboard handle to help with access and organization of the three Laser sail shape control lines (vang, cunningham, and outhaul). The main idea is to keep the lines close to the gunnel for easy access while hiking. If it happens to be flipped to the wrong (leeward) side, it’s pretty easy to very briefly lean in to flip it to windward.

The flip-flop handle is easily made by folding over some 7 mm line twice so that the shaft is composed of three lines with a triangular cross section. Wrapping with several layers of plastic tape results in an appropriate degree of stiffness. One end of the handle is attached to the centerboard using a hole near the top aft corner. The three control lines are tied to the free end of the handle. It’s about 24 inches long. I believe it should be class-legal.

So far I’ve used it on a couple of race days at a great local club in Duxbury, Massachusetts. It seems to be working out pretty well. Besides the easy access while hiking, it tends to keep the excess line away from the main sheet block which otherwise can be easily jammed. If the control lines become tangled on the deck, a quick whip motion of the handle helps to free them up. When you are positioned aft while sailing downwind, access for the adjustments just before rounding the leeward mark is also improved by angling the handle a bit aft.

If you think it might be helpful, give it a try.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Appreciating the Zen of Boat Maintenance

Everyone accepts that maintenance is a part of boat ownership, a necessary evil for most of us. The questions for a boat owner are what kind of maintenance is required and how much time, blood, and money it will demand.

The character of boat maintenance spans a very wide spectrum. For newer boats, maintenance is mostly about shininess with fiberglass polish, varnish, and wax. For old beaters, maintenance is disaster mitigation and control, an exercise in emergency medicine and triage. The right tools are often unavailable and correct parts unobtainable. MacGyver-like solutions allow the sailors and boats to survive an “incident”, but leave the boat needing at least as much corrective repair as before.

I have been at both ends of the spectrum and found little satisfaction at either one. Even with my new laser, I’m falling short. There is a kid at the club who keeps his 8 year old boat shinier than mine. He wet sands and polishes seemingly every time he uncovers the boat, and somehow the sand that finds its way into every little corner of my boat is magically repelled from his.

Most of my high school coaching tenure has been spent at the other end of the spectrum. Our program began by using four very old (30 years, give or take a decade), battered, leaky Tech Dinghies borrowed from a local college with an on again, but mostly off again, sailing program. They were held together by a mishmash of hardware, duct tape, and habit, and the repeated breakdowns were repaired with whatever parts were on hand at the local hardware store. The boats were an embarrassment and a source of endless frustration.

Boat maintenance can seem to be a losing battle against entropy, the physics word for the tendency for the universe to move toward disorder and degradation. No matter what you do, the boats are going to steadily become at least a little worse than they used to be.

At some point, however, there is an opportunity to overcome entropy and actually make the boat better. After the gloss is off the fiberglass, the rigging is well used, the lines are sun faded and worn, and the blades or keels are nicked, there lies an opportunity for redemption. Big boaters who spend more time at the dock messing with their boats than sailing them understand this. It involves a certain intimacy with the boat and a reverence for the function and value of each part. It requires an understanding that each part contributes to the whole and the whole depends on each part. And an important part of that whole is the guy who labors to keep it all working and in balance. The person who does the maintenance can be at one with the boat, and a little piece of Zen-like happiness is possible.

For me, this started to happen after our sailing team acquired a second batch of boats to grow the program to 12 one-design boats. I started noticing the different style vangs and the many subtle variations in the way the boats were rigged and, in some cases, the way they were built. The anal instincts in me craved some consistency, and my competitive side demanded equal boats. We found enough money to buy necessary hardware and new lines. We installed interchangeable parts where the exiting ones were no longer quite interchangeable. We repaired fiberglass scars and defects, especially the broken rear corners that are an inevitable part of a 420 used in competition by junior sailors. We made the boats better, and those of us involved, made ourselves better.

Now that we are again replacing one of our sets of six boats with newer used boats, we are going through another round of upgrades. This time, all boats are getting revarnished tillers, matching tiller extensions, refurbished pivot bolts and bushings, fiberglass damage on the blades repaired, and new downhaul and tie down lines. All control lines will be brand new and identically colored-coded. It is really satisfying to breathe new life into older boats. Life is good.

Aside: Every year, there are one or two kids who spend a lot of time doing this. For some, this is the best part of their sailing experience. Seems like a very good thing when kids in this throw away culture learn to take care of something.

In the first few years as I was losing the battle with entropy, my goal was just to spend less time on boat maintenance. I am finally realizing that the goal should be to spend the allotted time dedicated to preventative and restorative maintenance. Kaizen. Old boats are not my enemy; they are my opportunity to make improvements. Old boats have always created opportunities for kids (and adults) to learn to love sailing and for their keepers to discover the rewards of maintenance. Always will, I suspect.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Help a Grassroots Sailing Organization

Not knowing how well publicized the fire at the University of New Hampshire boathouse has been, I want to publish this this letter from the team captain. All boats, equipment, and the boat house are a total loss.

This is exactly the kind of grassroots sailing organization that has been praised in this blog and several others. They support sailing every which way in their array of programs. If you can help them, please do. They are very worthy of our support.

From Chris Edwards of UNH's sailing program:

As some of you may not know, on March 3, 2010 the UNH Sailing Team's boathouse was set fire to, and all the equipment inside had been destroyed. The structure at the pond sheltered over 55 sailboats (Opti's, Lasers, Sunfish, Club 420's, FJ's), outboard engines, trailers, coach boats, tools, and other gear, all of which were lost in the fire. Estimates have been upward of $600,000. State Fire Marshall's Office has ruled the fire was incendiary, or intentionally set. The police are still investigating who started the fire.

We are still unaware of what type of insurance will be awarded as well.

As a co-ed student-run team, we work to promote an interest in sailing, in both recreation and competitive inter-collegiate racing. The team is open to any students who want to join, regardless of their experience. In the past fall season, we had over 50 active members on our roster. The majority of these students, many for whom sailing was a new activity, took the opportunity to participate in competitive racing in New England last season. In the spring, the UNH Sailing Team also coaches a combined regional Junior and Senior High School sailing team at our sailing center for their spring racing season which includes hosting the NH State High School Championship. Their season at the moment remains in limbo.

This fire has also affected the UNH Community Sailing Program, a summer sailing program open to local youths ages 6-18. The loss of their own resources including Opti's, Lasers, and those other boats they share with the collegiate team has jeopardized this organization and the summer activity of over 200 youth sailors.

The team is a club team and as such raises almost every penny for boats, equipment, regatta travel, coach's salaries and so forth. The sailors maintain all the boats, build the docks and essentially develop an ongoing deep sense of pride, commitment and leadership by being members of the UNH Sailing Team. We are extremely saddened by our loss but are grateful for the many emails, phone calls and offers of support.

This team will not be shut down. We will rebuild the centre, acquire boats and become stronger through adversity. Hopefully, through the support of the greater community of sailing, that process will happen sooner than later. Despite the extent of our losses, current team members, alumni, coaches, and our University advisors are optimistic and are moving toward the rebuilding process. We have suffered a terrible blow but are confident that our team bond and love of sailing will help us bounce back from this tragedy. We are currently working on some short term goals (allowing us and the Junior/Senior combined high school team to practice), mid-term goals (getting boats for the summer program and starting to create a structure for our sailing center), and long term goals (acquiring new or refurbished boats and replacing the equipment that was lost). We will rebuild, and we will continue to sail our spring season.

If you would like to donate to the team, whether it is tools, boats, electronics, parts, or even cash donations, we would be very appreciative. Any type of donation is valued. Any contacts or connections to boat or construction businesses are very helpful. Several corporate sponsors have reached out to assist us in this transitional time. On our website, we have a donations page with more information. http://www.unh.edu/sailing-club/

Thank you for your time, and we are grateful for your support.


Chris Edwards Brittany Healy
Captain Commodore

Monday, March 8, 2010

Accidental Manly Men

O Docker’s comment to my last post, Why Manly Men Never Use a Radial Sail, wisely pointed out that Manly Men characteristics aren’t limited to sailors of smaller, more athletic boats. The tendency to use brute force and a sense of bravado instead of intelligence and good judgment is evident in manly sailors of all boats. Perhaps there is a macho gene that takes hold of us and overrides all other brain functions when certain opportunities present themselves.

As I suggested in the last post, one of the compensations for our manly acts of foolishness is the opportunity for a good story. Here is my personal big boat tale of stupidity and inexperience triggering my Man-Up instinct.

At one point some years ago, I was a little bored with racing dinghies and thought I should expand my horizons to include comfy, cruising keelboats. I took a rather big first step and bought a used Pearson 36, a beautiful, comfortable, well made boat from a quality company… not counting some of the shitty lasers they made in an apparent sideline business. (Alas, they were driven out of business in 1991 by the recession and the introduction of a luxury tax on big boats.)

Admitting that a five day US Sailing course in bareboat cruising might not have taught me all I needed to know, when I picked up the boat I brought along an experienced friend who I will call Ralph Snodsmith. (No offense to any real Ralph Snodsmiths out there.) Because the new home of the boat was a full day’s sail from its current location, our trip began with some two hour jockeying of dry land transportation so that we would have a car waiting at journey’s end. The water part of the trip got underway in unusually calm Sippican Harbor in Marion, MA. As we motored out, it only seemed logical to raise the sails to be ready for Buzzard’s bay, known for its frequent 15 – 25 knot winds and 4 foot waves. As Ralph raised the main, it caught on a mysterious line, halting the process. The line appeared to go from a grommet on the luff forward along the boom. Not understanding the function of this line, we untied and removed it. Minutes later, another similar line became another obstruction and was handled in the same way. Finally, the main was up. Unfurling the 135% genoa followed efficiently. Geared up for the tumultuous Buzzard’s Bay, we found a sheet of glass. Humph. This never happens. Thank God for diesels.

The next segment of this under-powered power boat trip was through Cod Canal, passable only with a favorable current. Competent mariners for sure, we had timed this correctly. With apparent wind only generated by our movement, we kept the main up and furled the genoa. My first trip through the canal was smooth as silk.

To those of you anxiously awaiting the manly men part, thank you for your patience. It’s coming shortly.

On the Massachusetts Bay side, we finally found the wind we came for, a comfortable 8 – 10 knot off shore breeze. Finally the rumble of the diesel could be silenced and the peaceful beauty of travelling under sail power could be savored. Moving north at 5 knots on a close reach with flat water, life was very good. Man, was I smart to buy this boat!

Getting up to Plymouth Harbor, the wind had picked up to about 12, and boat speed went to 6 knots. It was really cool to have instruments that actually measured these things. In dinghies, we just make up these numbers by the seat of our pants based on our self proclaimed expertise and narrative needs.

Proceeding northward past Marshfield beach, the wind had built to a solid 15. The boat was heeled 18 degrees. (Measurement based on a crude tilt-o-meter and a poor memory… in other words, made up.) Half an hour later, the wind was up to 20 and the boat over to 25 degrees. (Same measuring system, but you get the trend.) Boat speed was about 7 – 8 knots. Boy, this was fun!

My experienced friend, Ralph, cautioned, “If this wind keeps building, we should think about reefing the sails.” Instead, we skipped any thinking and just enjoyed the ride for the next half hour as the wind built to 25 and the boat was over to 30 something degrees. Fifteen minutes later, we finally got serious and decided it was time to shorten sail. Ralph confidently wrapped the genoa furling line around the winch and began pulling. Nothing happened. Pulled harder, the line did not move. “The furling line must have jumped the spool. I’ll go forward and put it back on,” Ralph said calmly. I was in good hands.

As the wind had increased, it had moved forward. We adjusted to a close hauled course, and even with a short fetch from land, waves were starting to build. I was happy it was Ralph bouncing up there on the bow. It seemed he was up there for quite a while, and as he crawled back to the cockpit, I was hopeful that we were going to get this boat back to a more comfortable heeling angle.

“I couldn’t get it. The line looped over itself under the spool and I just can’t get it undone. We’ll be fine like this.”

“Maybe if we reef the main, it will help,” I said tentatively, trying to be helpful.

“Why not,” responded Ralph. “We’ll give it a try.”

We surveyed the situation. There were two grommets at the luff of the sail. All we had to do was to find some line to make an outhaul and lower the main

“Maybe we can use one of those lines we took off getting the main up,” I suggested.

“You know,” Ralph said thoughtfully, “those lines were tied to those grommets before I removed them. Maybe they were reefing lines.” (Doh!) “I’ll just retie them.”

Turns out that those reef points are pretty high off the cockpit seats when the main is up. Judging from the considerable reach of the 6’2” Ralph, the lower one must have been about 7 and a half feet up, just a little too high for him to get. (Aside: The nifty jiffy reefing system on the boat worked really well once I learned how to rig it properly.)

“We’ll be fine,” we told ourselves. “We can handle a little wind and the boat heeling over.” We were tough guys, manly men of the sea. Heeling over was not really a problem, only an inconvenience. The formidable weather helm just required a little muscle to keep the boat on course.

That eastern shore from the Cape Cod Canal up to Hingham where the boat was to be docked is a lot longer by sea than it is by car or appears on a map. Passing five towns may seem quite do-able, but these towns stretched for miles and miles. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we were just beginning to see parts of the third town, Scituate.

Now the wind was consistently in the high 20’s. We watched the anemometer readout, taking pride in our manhood with every gust. The highest was 33. We were pretty impressed with ourselves to be under full sail in this wind. At this point, the boat with a five foot freeboard had its rail buried in the water. No problemo. We could handle it.

As we approached Scituate harbor about 5:30, we noticed a lot of boats out. They had reefed sails. “Must be the Wednesday night race,” my knowledgeable companion observed. We were going to go right by them, affording a good view of the race. As we approached the fleet, we noticed a boat on the left reaching toward the other boats. From a distance, it was clear she was going to cross us with no problem. As we got closer, it wasn’t quite so clear that she was going to cross. Still nearer, it looked like it was going to be very close.

“Just to be safe, bear off and give him plenty of room,” Ralph suggested. With more speed we’ll cross him and give him plenty of room to go behind if he has to. Or we’ll just go parallel until it gets sorted out.”

With considerable effort, I turned the wheel to head down. When the boat didn’t respond, I turned harder.

“Let’s go! Turn down!” Ralph shouted with more intensity than usual. “It’s getting too close!”

“I’m trying! It’s not going!” (Funny how large boats behave like dinghies in this respect. Full sails in big wind completely overcome the rudder in steering the boat.)

By this time, all aboard the other boat were hollering at me too. They were in complete disbelief that some asshole just out cruising might actually hit them during a race. Sweating, I began imagining the shattering of fiberglass that would occur when a 15,000 pound boat going 7 knots broadsided another boat. As the boats came within a few boat lengths of each other, Ralph simultaneously yelled “tack!” and dumped the main. The dumping of the main allowed the ruder to take over just enough to turn the boat and avoid the stern of the other boat by five feet. The two of us finally exhaled, but the screaming from the other boat continued. We hung our heads in shame for causing the close encounter, but we also secretly prided ourselves on our quick reactions and heroic disaster avoidance skills.

Having a modicum of sense, we admitted to each other as we sailed on that our unfamiliarity with a new boat had caused considerable anxiety to everyone on both boats. But what could we have done? Under full sail in that wind, a big boat is really hard to handle. In the end, no one was harmed, no property damaged. No big deal.

Checking the time, we realized that there was no way we were going to reach our destination before dark. Our vast experience told us that navigating an unfamiliar harbor at night was a potentially bad idea. Besides, we were tired and really needed some beers.

Being the veteran sailors we knew ourselves to be, we radioed the harbor master and requested a mooring for the night. He gave us a mooring right on the channel, not allowing us to demonstrate our boat handling skills in tight spaces. Maybe he had already heard about us. After finally fixing the genoa spool, we stowed the sails and closed up the boat for the night.

As we rode the launch in, who did we pass but the sailors on the boat we narrowly missed. Fortunately, they did not recognize us as we turned our faces away in casual manly avoidance. However, halfway through our first beer, our would-be victims strode into the bar. We were going to have to meet this head on as real men do. After a friendly greeting, we apologized, offered to buy them a couple of beers, and laughed at our close call. We earned forgiveness, at least in our minds, at the very reasonable cost of two beers each.

We were, however, still 10 miles from the car we planed to drive home. Being single at the time, I had no one to call, and it would have been an admission of failure to ask Ralph’s wife to make a rescue trip. No biggie. Ralph said he would use his manly charm to find a ride back to the car. So effective was Ralph’s “charm” that it was actually one of our victims who located someone going our way – an absolutely shitfaced drunk. Not to worry. It was late, few cars still out, secondary roads.

It was, in fact, no problem. Our new friend was one of those highly cautious drunk drivers, never breaking 20 MPH all the way back to our car.

Getting into the car, we breathed a long, deep salt air sigh of relief and satisfaction. We had conquered a 33 knot wind without conceding an inch of sail area, we had avoided, nay prevented, a disaster, we had made new friends, and we had a good story to tell and perhaps embellish. A good day for two manly men of the sea.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why Manly Men Never Use a Radial Sail

A few weeks ago, as I sat eating my quiche and reading about Tillerman’s adventures in frostbiting in 18 - 30 MPH winds, I thought about how courageous he was in conditions where I might have wimped out and used a radial.

For anyone who doesn’t sail a laser, I should first explain what a radial is. Lasers can accommodate three sizes of sail – full rig, radial, and 4.7 – each one getting successively smaller. The idea is that smaller and lighter people can step down the sail area and still sail with the same hull. It is also a way for sailors to deal with increasing wind by reducing sail area, just like every big boat in the world does. It would seem there is ample precedent for the wisdom of this concept.

Nevertheless, manly men never reduce sail on a laser no matter what the wind, their physical limitations, or their sailing deficiencies. (A few shorter, lighter, perhaps smarter men are notable exceptions to this rule, but they have Laser Radial World Championships to prove their prowess.) Below is a list of 6 excellent reasons why manly men continue to defy conventional big boat sailing wisdom and never cop out with a radial.

Radials are for girls. It’s simple in the Olympics – men sail full rigs, women sail radials. Period. End of story. It doesn’t matter how big or strong the women are or how small the men are. It’s a gender issue, and only girls sail radials. Gender identification can be a slippery slope, and no manly man wants to take even a first step down that slope.

Radial sailing girlie girl
Radials are for weaklings. Radials suggest a smaller stature, and we all know it is the strong, tall, manly men who control the world, run the corporations and get elected to political office. (i.e. Scott Brown and Mitt Romney – we are so shallow in Massachusetts.) Never mind that when the wind approaches 20, radials are just as fast upwind, even with the best sailors sailing full rigs against radials. When everyone is overpowered, the big guys lose their edge, and it becomes a contest of boat handling and wave management, but that’s no reason to make those things easier by using a smaller sail. Manly men are tough enough to struggle with the bigger sail in the toughest of conditions.

Radials are too slow. Manly men always go for maximum speed. Being in control doesn’t matter. Even though the two sails become about equal upwind, downwind the big sail always goes faster if it stays upright. The more Adeline the better. Damn the consequences, full speed ahead!

Manly men aren’t chicken. Regardless of the amount of wind and the size of the waves, a smaller sail is an admission of fear. Fear is not acceptable in the code of the manly man. Even if every sailor on the beach understands that radial sails are just a common sense reaction to the conditions, no manly man wants to be the first to suggest it. He is understood by the others to have conceded that his thingie is smaller than the other guy's thingie.
Fearless manly man
Manly men like to overcome disasters. The bigger the disaster, the more spectacular the crash, the tougher the man who accepted the pain. Actual sailing injuries provide fodder for great stories of heroic recoveries. Manly men welcome the potential dangers of a bigger sail and want to be filmed having spectacular death rolls that would scare women and children off the water forever. Taking risks is for the manly. Being smart is for the nerd.

Heroic manly man
Manly men will always prevail. If they can’t stay upright, they can still demonstrate their prowess with powerful swimming and skilled boat righting techniques. Rather than meekly accepting the limitations of their skills and using their judgment, they can claim to be heroic, life saving first responders… albeit of themselves. A declaration of victory is what it is all about.

The marks of a manly man are strength, courage, desire for adventure, and the ability to prevail over whatever comes. God bless you, manly men!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Finding Yourself

Yesterday's post was about the well known Myers Briggs personality typing system. Although it is THE system of choice in the corporate world and elsewhere, there are some other ways to categorize personalities. If it is helpful to define yourself in such a system, here are a few more ways to look at it. Find yourself in each one. All serious discussion has been omitted here as I let the visuals speak for themselves.

The Ennegram defines personalities in nine basic types, and within the types, you have a "wing" that leans to one of the types next door.

Never having been a corporate type, this is more my impression of how personality typing really goes in the business world.

Asians have a whole different terminology if not a completely different way of understanding things. I'd need a little help placing myself in this system.

Back to Western thinking, this one has some fancy terms that look very serious. I would need to read the instruction manual to figure this one out. Myers Briggs calls me a thinker and blue is the color of my eyes, so there must be somethhing to this one.

Apparently the technological world has a different way of defining us.

When we transcend our own machines and venture out into the Internet, it gets more complicated. I'm stuck in the two squares in the bottom left corner. I suspect many of you are more daring.
This last one says it all. I have people in my family within each of the four types.
Since each system has its limitations, looking at a multitude of schemes may give us a more complete understanding of who we are. It that really helpful?

I have no graphic that analizes each of us by the type of boat we sail, so there is still some room for academics to write new books.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What if Myers Briggs is Full of Crap?

Tillerman just cranked out over a thousand words to prove to himself that he is the INTJ that Myers Briggs personality testing told him he was, not the ESPN (or whatever) that Typealyzer says his writing suggests he is. That INTJ or ESPN designation can be a comforting source of identity that reminds us who we are. It tells us how we approach other people and life situations.

Perhaps the results of personality tests should be printed on a little card that could be put into our wallets next to our driver’s license and social security cards. They’d surely provide more useful information about any “real” identity than height, weight, hair color, eye color, and last known address.

The personality card would be a handy reference for ourselves. In times of trouble and soul crippling crisis, we could refer to it for guidance as to how our particular personality type should proceed. If we can read the road map that is encrypted in those four letters - ESPN – we will find a way through our dilemma. Our personality will approach the situation in this general way of that general way.

But is this understanding of “who we are” descriptive or prescriptive? If it describes us, it only helps us understand our behavior in the past. It tells us which of our inner tools we prefer to use or have preferred in the past. If we apply the same toolkit to new situations, aren’t we likely to get the same results? Doesn’t it take some “out of character” act to avoid living in the endless loop of Groundhog Day?

According to one personality typing theory I have read, Personality Types - Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, personalities are somewhat more of a limitation than an asset. As we get older and healthier, we tend to demonstrate a wider variety of personality characteristics. If there is a goal, it is to achieve a balance between the types, giving us access to all the tools and allowing us to use the right one for the job. By that logic, it is a very good thing to get somewhat different results on different tests. (And it has to be good to frustrate the testers!)

I’m sure that Tillerman was the most entertaining of all possible IT managers, but I wonder if his old business world friends would guess that Tillerman and their old friend inhabited the same body. I suspect that in Proper Course he uses some inner tools that weren’t in his briefcase and that some of his work devices don’t get as much use as before.

For my money, I give as much credence to Typealyzer as the Meyers Briggs test. There is no reason both can’t be pretty accurate – or completely full of crap. If Tillerman has been tagged with some new letters now so as to be an alphabet soup of personality, it’s a credit to his complexity, versatility, and mental health.

In this case, the words of Walt Whitman apply to our blogmaster: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Yarg, a humble INTP

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Fear Factor

I’m not a sailor. When I met my avid sailor husband, I decided to try to take up the sport, but it hasn’t really happened. I’ve done a little sunfish sailing. That’s it. Why haven’t I learned to sail? I’m afraid of capsizing and looking foolish, and, believe it or not, the threat of spiders on the boat.

The last time I went out sailing, my greatest fear was realized. Before I launched, I carefully inspected the whole boat looking for spiders, great and small. I checked every crack and crevice, everywhere they might lurk, and I insisted that the ones I found disembark immediately. Only once I felt confident that the boat was spidey-free did I tentatively set off. But the little devils are tricky, and out of nowhere, a very big, very burly arachnid suddenly appeared shortly after I was underway. To my horror, he made a beeline straight for me as I cowered in the back of the cockpit. Shrieking like a girl, I tried to splash him off before he could sink his fangs into my leg. (Actually, people say that they don’t often do that, but one can’t be too careful.)

Making a hasty and wobbly tack back toward the dock, I threw myself into the water as soon as it was shallow enough and left the still gliding boat to my eight legged antagonist. My husband on shore, aghast that I’d abandon ship in such a fashion, grabbed the unmanned boat before any damage was done. He was slightly amused and disgusted at the same time. I just felt ashamed. Frustrated, my husband pointed out that spiders would not set up camp on the boat if I sailed it every day. Despite this fact, I am disinclined to risk another excursion any time soon.

Mrs. Yarg

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chaotic Waves

It has been about a month now since returning from Cabarete, DR, where I had the chance to try to learn something about sailing a Laser in waves. I thought I’d throw out a few observations. Any comments would be very welcome.

Sailing upwind, I had to unlearn some things. We flat-water lake sailors try very hard to keep the boat flat. But with waves, some heel (? 10-20 degrees) may be required to keep the waves from breaking over the windward bow, filling the cockpit, and to facilitate the heading up move as you rise up each wave. Bearing off at the top of the wave to slide down the other side doesn’t result in the lee bow plowing into water despite the heel because the bow is actually somewhat airborne at that point.

Waves often come from odd and constantly changing directions. You can frequently have large waves that are easily 45 degrees or more from the wind direction. On one tack upwind, the waves are broadside, but on the other tack, they are head-on. I found that often the boat was buffeted by the waves seemingly in a random fashion with rolling, pitching, and yawing - at least it seemed that way to me, especially on a beat. The sail luffs one second and is over-trimmed the next. I found myself madly trying to correct with the tiller which I’m sure was only making things worse.

I am still confused as to the best way to deal with these chaotic waves. Maybe I need to hike out more horizontally to increase the rolling moment of inertia and reduce the rolling. Maybe I should try to actively change my hiking to keep the heeling more constant. Maybe I should play the sheet more, and the rudder less. Maybe I need to better judge the approaching waves to make adjustments preemptively. I imagine that the best approach is different for each wind and wave condition.

Then I took a second look at the photo at the top of this post which I believe was taken shortly after a start. There is quite a bit of variation in the hiking styles and maybe a correlation between these hiking styles and the sailors’ positions in the race. I am embarrassed to note that I appear to be just casually sitting on the deck of my boat (133827 in the foreground). Maybe I just need to hike!

Although I know I’m just beginning to learn how to sail a Laser in waves, I do feel quite a bit more stable and comfortable now sailing in these conditions which was the main goal for the trip to Cabarete. I think I am able to time the tacks earlier so they are completed by the top of the wave if a flat spot to tack is not available. I know I must cross the boat very quickly and aggressively during both tacks and jibes to avoid capsizing and maintain momentum. I know how to sit in a more “locked-in” position while riding waves downwind and to simply steer left or right to avoid slamming the bow into the next wave. I know I have to stay more alert at all times. (Once I capsized while just resting before a drill because I didn’t notice a wave coming that crashed over me.) Putting it all together, I think I am nearing the point where sailing in waves will actually be fun!


Monday, February 15, 2010

It Goes Without Saying

After an exhausting six hour delay, I watched yesterday’s America’s Cup race on ESPN’s webcast. Gary Jobson and Randy Smyth did a terrific job of talking sailors through the race. Randy Smyth, former Olympic silver medal winner (twice) in Tornadoes, (catamarans) added an area of expertise that Jobson lacked and was tremendously informative on the techniques and art of multi-hull sailing. I thought he brought out the best in Jobson and that they made a great team.

Now that I have said nice things about them, it’s time to slam them. It’s really just picking a bone, but we’ll call it slamming for the indignant blogger’s effect. Is it really necessary to skew criticism and praise so that the loser gets all of the former and the winner all of the latter? It’s not fair, and it’s not deserved. It seems to me that Jobson and Smyth could never get over the facts that Alinghi had not used those high tech curved daggerboards and that they had a windward rudder that frequently dragged in the water. They brought it up repeatedly at five minute intervals. They were rightfully hard on Alinghi for the pre-start fouls which on both days were inexcusable for racing at this level. (Why wasn’t Ed Baird driving? Really, come on!)

But on the other side, I thought they let BMW off the hook for not following the Sailing 101 textbook. Right there in the chapter about one on one sailing (which applies to match racing, team racing , and fleet racing) it says that the boat ahead should cover the boat behind. This must be even more true when the boat ahead is faster. The only way for the faster boat ahead to loose the lead is to allow the opponent to sail in different wind where they might get a favorable shift and/or more wind.

The situation happened just after the start. BMW Oracle got into a controlling pre-start position and then watched Alinghi do an agonizingly, horrendously slow escape tack. The result that was the BMW Oracle had a substantial lead at the start. Alinghi had already committed a foul, so she was, in fact, behind by a penalty turn plus the gap at the starting line. Because Alinghi tacked, they were on port and headed right. BMW Oracle was still on starboard. The standard move is for BMW Oracle to tack and cover. The view from the boat must be different. BWM Oracle must have seen something they liked on the left, but the faster boat sailing in the same wind, BMW Oracle could have pretty much put the fork into Alinghi early on.

Shortly after the start of the second race, Alinghi on port and BMW Oracle leading on starboard tack.

I don’t know what happens, but it seems every time I’m absolutely sure the opponent is going the wrong way, and I don’t cover, the other boat gets the shift and takes the lead. It’s embarrassing how many times this happens. You think I would learn. It must be Murphy’s law of sailing. (Remember when Dennis Conner made the same mistake to lose the cup in 1983?)

Sure enough, Alinghi got a 20 degree shift and eventually took a substantial lead.

Jobson and Smyth had called for the early tack even before Alinghi got to the starting line, but BMW Oracle sailed on, splitting tacks, and giving Alinghi the leverage they needed to have a chance. Both commentators made the suggestion to tack about a minute and a half later, but it took about three full minutes before the tack actually occurred. By that time, the boats were about a mile apart. Why weren’t Jobson and Smyth shouting about this apparent blunder? They know better. BMW Oracle handed Alinghi their only real chance. Once the incident was in the past, the announcers dropped the subject. For a while, not surprisingly, the faster BMW Oracle boat continued to gain, getting as much as a 500 meter lead. But then Murphy’s law (and the better wind closer to shore) began to take effect, gradually eating up the lead and then advancing Alinghi to as much as 590 meters ahead. As BMW Oracle lost the lead and then got significantly behind, Jobson and Smyth said nothing about their failure to cover. As a coach, albeit one at a very basic level of sailing, I’m jumping up and down in these situations ranting about obvious mistakes.

How could Jobson and Smyth just let this go so quietly? I understand all is forgiven after BMW regains the lead, but if you are talking about match race tactics, this is quite an omission.

All in all, we knew this was an engineering contest to build the fastest wind powered rocket ship, but shouldn’t world class sailors get the basic match racing stuff right? It’s not as if there were many opportunities for mistakes and somebody made one. There were only a handful of times the racing was tactical, and mistakes were made about half the time. And shouldn’t big time sailing commentators use this opportunity to hammer home to interested viewers the tactics of match racing? If one team makes a mistake, say so! It shouldn’t be hushed up just because it’s our team.

And congratulations to BMW Oracle, the better sailors and by far the better rocket ship.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Organized Racing Without the Organization

Everybody involved in sailboat racing understands that the following statement from US Sailing is obvious and boringly self-evident.

For most races in the country, a yacht club is the organizing authority. … As a host, the yacht club provides the venue and facilities for the regatta, and may or may not the responsible for the duties of the organizing authority. When it is not the organizing authority, it usually provides the facilities, the equipment, and the race committee to conduct the racing to the organizing authority…… - US Sailing Race Management Handbook (9).

Yet, as I was driving home from an informal meeting where sailors were organizing spring laser sailing, it occurred to me there was no yacht club involved - and no organizing authority either! A bunch of sailors had decided it would be fun to race lasers together and had gotten together (starting last fall) to figure out how to make that work for the most people. Doesn’t sound like the US Sailing version of organizing racing, does it?

And as I thought about it some more, it seemed I could rattle off many examples of regional laser sailing happening outside the auspices of yacht clubs.
  • Duxbury spring and fall series – self organized using Duxbury Bay Maritime School facilities
  • Winthrop Frostbiting at Cottage Park Yacht Club – where virtually no winter sailors (lasers or interclubs) are members of the club but there is a symbiotic relationship between the groups (maybe good customers at the club bar)
  • Newport Frostbiting – self organized fleet using Sail Newport facilities
  • Sail Salem is a public sailing organization promoting a laser fleet
  • New England Masters Regatta is run from a public beach with help from sail Newport and other individuals
  • Frostbiting and summer sailing in Bristol – self organized, but using yacht club facilities (especially the bar) in the winter, and no connection to any yacht clubs in the summer
  • Saltmarsh Regatta is run from New Bedford Community Boating – is there a yacht club involved? Does Community Boating take the lead in organizing, or are the facilities just “borrowed?”

There may be more.

In my limited experience, this seems to be unique to lasers, at least to the degree to which it seems to be happening. Why is the relationship between yacht clubs and laser sailing any different than between yacht clubs the sailing of other boats? What’s up with laser sailors, or the boats, or the yacht clubs?

Some solid hypotheses:

  • Simplicity of boats. The boats are very portable and mobile. They are light and easy to car top or trailer, usually by only one person. They are quick and easy to set up and launch. They are self rescuing and therefore need little or no rescue support (depending on conditions of course). It only takes one person do decide to go sailing. However, this is all true for Sunfish too.
  • Simplicity of race management. With less need for rescue support, fewer people are needed to run a race. In local racing, the races don’t need to be long. A starting line, windward mark, and a leeward mark make a fine racecourse. One person can do it. Some fleets eliminate the starter altogether and do rabbit starts.
  • Out of season racing. A lot of laser sailing is frostbiting or spring and fall extensions of the yacht club summer season. Clubs are closed or barely interested in the off season. Those with bars have more interest.
  • Sailor enthusiasm. In addition to sailing when others have put their boats away and sought indoor warmth and comfort, laser sailors seem willing to travel long distances (100 miles or more- wow!) for a day of sailing. They sacrifice convenience to find good competition. They also seem to self-organize as needed to immediately satisfy their sailing habits, rather than depending on others (including slower moving yacht clubs) for help.

Other more speculative and perhaps cynical explanations involving potential character flaws in both laser sailors and yacht clubs:

  • Laser sailors have less need for boat storage and therefore don’t have compulsory ties to yacht clubs.
  • Saying you are a yacht club member says little about your interests in sailing. Calling oneself a laser sailor is a meaningful description. Laser sailors have a stronger allegiance to the class than to a club they may belong to.
  • Some yacht clubs may historically not have had enough laser sailors as members to establish a critical mass within the club to satisfy laser sailors.
  • Laser sailing is growing in popularity faster than yacht clubs can organize to keep up.
  • While yacht clubs continue to support some of their long standing fleets in spite of diminishing numbers they don’t appear interested in hosting and supporting newly self organized laser sailing. Laser sailors don’t seem to have enough clout at clubs to get them interested.
  • Laser sailors can be independent and self indulgent to the point of not tolerating certain yacht club organizational sluggishness. They seem to lack the patience required to work with the staid traditions of yacht club organization and would prefer to “just do it”.

I love that laser sailors are self organizers. It’s good for the sport, good for the organizers, and good for their fellow sailors. Sailing should be supported and promoted in every way it can, inside yacht clubs, in public sailing organizations, and in independent sailing without organizations. Isn’t that the whole idea?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Sense of Proportion

It is reported that Larry Ellison and the BMW Oracle campaign has spent a lot of money - $250 million by some estimates - on this year’s America’s Cup three race regatta. We are so used to hearing large numbers that we don’t really put them in terms relative to our own spending. I fully realize than an egotistical billionaire wouldn’t think of spending his sailing money in the ways we ordinary Plebian sailors do, but just imagine if he did. I know it’s a silly, kind of an apples and oranges thing, but I tried to figure out what the money spent could mean in terms of the boats and activities of some my favorite bloggers.
  • 45,620 new race-rigged Lasers
  • A new laser for each sailor in 537 fleets the size of the very large Newport Frostbite fleet (85)
  • A new laser for each sailor in 2281 fleets the size of the one at my yacht club
  • 65,274 new Sunfish
  • 31,486 new 420’s or FJ’s
  • 13,736 new Flying Scots (about twice the number ever built in 50 years)
  • 2631 new Catalina 309’s
  • $523,102 for each high school and college program in the US
  • 66 new boats for each US high school and college with a sailing program
  • $43,165 per year in perpetuity for each high school and college sailing program if invested in an endowment yielding 5% a year
  • Or 5.4 new boats per year for each high school and college sailing program – forever
(Boat costs are taken from the manufacturers’ retail price on their website, the Catalina price from a Cruising World review, and the number of college and high school sailing teams from their respective national organization websites.)
And even for the billionaires:

  • Thirteen 1980 vintage America’s Cup winning campaigns
  • 2 ½ 2007 America’s Cup winning campaigns
  • 24 Newport mansions like the one Larry Ellison just bought
It seems the world has lost track of where to put the decimal points. And I really don’t understand big numbers.